The defense official, an administration official and a State Department official, all speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations are supposed to be private, agreed that the interagency process to produce a new nuclear posture review is proceeding apace without exposing grand fissures between the DoD, the State Department and the White House.
That doesn't mean there aren't any fissures.
In Gates's 2008 speech, which the defense official said was consistent with his current view, Gates said it would become impossible to "keep extending the life of our arsenal -- especially in light of our testing moratorium. It also makes it harder to reduce existing stockpiles, because eventually we won't have as much confidence in the efficacy of the weapons we do have."
Extending the life of the current arsenal means refinements to the nuclear cones, to the warheads themselves, and to the delivery systems. Vacuum tubes need to be replaced on some of the warheads, and advanced safety and surety features need to be added, Pentagon officials have said. Right now, the Department of Energy is working to update missiles through its Life Extension Program, or LEP. Experts seem to be divided about whether the LEP enhancements change the capabilities of the missiles. And arms control advocates say the vacuum tube argument is a red herring; the tubes are used on radar fuses, not on the warheads, and remain in working order.
Gates wants the Nuclear Posture Review to include funding to study designs for new nuclear warheads.
To others, including some in the State Department, the NPR should include nothing of the sort.
Senior Obama administration officials hold the latter view.
That follows the president's commitment to maintain a deterrence while pursuing an aggressive strategy of reduction. There ought not be any forward leaning into the next generation of nuclear weapons, Obama believes, because the current generation is sufficient for now -- and forever.
The Defense Department faces a PR challenge.
True -- the warheads tend to be old, haven't been tested in more than a decade, and, in some cases, have exceeded their projected viability. Secretary Gates and the Department of Energy under President Bush asked Congress to fund what it called the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which would have replaced most of the current stockpile with new, more efficient weapons that would have allowed the number of missiles to be reduced. Congress balked. The view of then-Senator Joe Biden was that the science wasn't there, the program reeked of Bush-Cheney imperialism, and it would be needlessly provocative.
The defense official acknowledged the RRW program was "terribly marketed."
"The impression was left that we were trying to build new nuclear weapons, and that's not what we wanted to do," the official said.